Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams and the Strange Lament of Losing People We Never Knew

So long, Robin Williams. I’ll miss you. Which is rare.

See, I’m tepid on celebrities. Their tabloid lives never interested me, and news of their falls from grace and (often tragic) deaths rarely affect me.  But a few celebrity-news-flash no-effing-way moments have left me staring out the window to reflect on life’s passing as though I’d lost a dear loved one. Williams’s suicide was like that. I feel like I knew the man, having as a kid watched him mature from Mork and Popeye to Sean Mcguire and Aladdin’s Genie. Now that he’s gone, I realize he kind of won the 1990s’ comic entertainment title for me, and then followed that up with some unbelievably relevant standup comedy/political philosophy in the 2000’s. We’ll get to that.

But this isn’t all about Williams. It’s about celebrity death in general, and how it can impact us. At one time or other, I think we all have had a prolonged moment of silence for the passing of a childhood icon or an adult inspiration.

The first no-effing-way moment for me was Magic Johnson’s announced diagnosis of HIV. On November 7, 1991 my fellow high school freshman sports nut neighbor, Andy brought me the news. It took a few swear-to-God’s before I believed him, but once I did we went silent and just stared at my basketball court, empty and cracked beneath an overcast Seattle sky. We couldn’t process the big picture. It felt as though every basketball court in America had just burst into flames, succumbed to ash, and disintegrated into the Earth; and we were falling with them into that gray sinkhole full of things that only adults, not kids, were supposed to understand. Seeing Magic claimed by the era’s most stigmatized disease numbed me to all further sporting world shocks and scandals: from baseball’s steroids to the NFL’s TBI-induced suicides; from Tiger Woods’ hormones to OJ’s and Aaron Hernandez’s murder; even to Jerry Sanduskie’s absolute horror. I was too scarred by that 1991 moment to ever take sports so personally again. I had to listen to some Nirvana, my favorite band at the time, and shoot some free throws to temper the bubbling well of emotions.

Fast forward to April, 1994. I’d grown into a dedicated grunge kid with a ponytail and goatee and flannels and Doc Martins, a cliché suburban Seattle high school junior, when Andy knocked again. It was early in the morning and I knew, just freaking new, that something terrible had happened from the look on his face.

“Kurt Cobain’s dead,” he said, bewildered.
“No. No way. No no no no no.”

I had no words. Kurt and Nirvana were more than music to me. They had found me at a very vulnerable time, a few weeks after losing my mother to cancer. Rocking to Nevermind daily for three years straight was like a daily sanity pill whose side-effects included lifelong hard rock passion and teenage angst sublimation. Dead? Kurt? You mean, he’d never growl out another song? He’d never team up with Michael Stipe as promised? Just… gone? And he freaking shot himself in the head? It was like losing a best friend. I actually got dizzy. In no way do I wish to trivialize historical events, but Kurt’s death helped me empathize with my parents when they’d ask their friends, “Where were you when Kennedy/Martin Luther King/Lennon was shot?” Cobain’s suicide, and Courtney Love’s nearly-as-gruesome-elegy at the Seattle Science Center, numbed me to all the many future deaths of my favorite musicians, from Layne Staley to Michael Jackson. (And yet still, like an immortal cancer culture preserved in a laboratory, Courtney Love lives).

And the last no-effing-way celebrity death (before Robin Williams): The good doctor, Hunter S. Thompson.  Shot himself. Right when I/we needed him most, in February of 2005, as the political shitblizzard thundered loudest around George W. Bush’s presidency. People recall Thompson for getting twisted on exotic drugs in Vegas and with the Hell’s Angels. People’s memories are incomplete. Thompson started off as a great sports writer and evolved into a uniquely skilled counterculture reporter and a passionate political journalist. I wonder if his passion ultimately killed him. For a whole week, I blamed Bush for Thompson’s suicide, figuring Thompson just couldn’t handle a political evil he decried as worse than Nixon, who Thompson believed was the nexus of ethical degradation and moral bankruptcy.

"Richard Nixon looks like a flaming liberal today, compared to a golem like George Bush. Indeed. Where is Richard Nixon now that we finally need him?" Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Thompson killed himself while half of America watched in horror as the other half voted a second time for George II, after he’d crushed and snorted the electoral college in 2000. We needed Thompson, or someone like him (Maureen Dowd?), to bring some clarity to a fundamentally insane situation and time. A few vintage Thompson articles were pumped out to such effect. He seemed to be regaining form at exactly the moment when an asymmetrical country stuck in an asymmetrical war needed some geometry. And then he offed himself. Damn. The same man who inspired me to be a writer—by doing things with words and stories that Nirvana did with guitars and lyrics, and Magic did with a basketball; the man who turned me on to politics--that guy put the gun on his chest and pulled the trigger. Just like Kurt. No no no no. I drank five fingers of bourbon that night in H.S.T’s honor.

Around that time I watched Robin Williams do standup in San Francisco, all of it hilarious and much of it political. The routine was a big risk considering that comics, musicians, and journalists alike were being hung with flaming tires and branded as subversive communist Sharia puppy-killers for saying anything other than HOW HIGH??? no matter how idiotic or repulsive the order to jump.

“Some men are born great, some men achieve greatness, some get it as a graduation gift.” – Robin Williams, Live on Broadway.

So now Williams is gone. I waded yesterday morning into the river of Facebook elegies, and I found it to be a stronger current than I recall following the passing of Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman and almost even Michael Jackson, amongst others, and I get it. Robin felt like someone we knew. We grew up with him and watched him change, struggle, succeed, mature. He evolved from an untethered goofball to a comic genius and dramatic powerhouse. There was something comforting about his bearded face in a sensitive movie, and something exciting about his crazed grin in a wacky one. We grew up watching him like he was our talented but wacky uncle everyone rooted for, but worried over.  

So long Robin. You’ve joined the small family of celebrity souls who reside in my heart. I’m sure you guys will get along great.

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